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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
24/03/2017
Estimates
COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Australian Communications and Media Authority

Australian Communications and Media Authority

[11:10]

CHAIR: Good morning. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Bean : No, thank you.

Senator URQUHART: I will start with some questions around the spectrum review. At supplementary estimates in October, I asked you to explain what resourcing implications implementation of the spectrum review would have on the ACMA work plan over the next two years. I quoted the chairman's message in ACMA's most recent five-year spectrum outlook of 2016-20, and that said:

This coming year, implementation of the government’s Spectrum Review reforms will require us to consider significant changes to our licensing, device supply schemes, pricing, compliance and enforcement activities and management of broadcasting services. This will have implications for the ACMA’s spectrum management functions and the prioritisation of our work.

Could you provide us with an update on what steps the ACMA is taking to prepare for the implementation of spectrum review reforms, including the single licensing system?

Mr Bean : Certainly. The ACMA and its staff have been working closely with the department as the department prepares the legislation to implement the recommendations of the review and, to date, we have been able to find the resources internally for that stage of the work. As the shape of the draft legislation becomes clearer and, as a consequence, the ACMA's precise role and obligations under the legislation become clearer, then we will be able to develop a better picture of how the agency will absorb the work of implementing the legislation. We are consulting closely with industry and all interested parties as the details of the implementation of the recommendations of the review become clearer, and that will include updates of our annual work program and the five-year spectrum outlook as they are developed during the year.

Fundamentally, the recommendations of the review are directed at simplifying and streamlining the regulatory structures and, as you referred to, the single licensing system. We will be required to develop and implement a new spectrum management framework to implement the new regime but also to ensure continuity for existing spectrum users. So there is a shortish term requirement to focus on developing and implementing new arrangements, and designing and administering a transition process for existing licensees. So we will manage our priorities in that context. We have been progressing our analysis of the resourcing requirements and that has included discussions with the Department of Communications and the Arts and the Department of Finance.

We will be publishing a revised work program, as I mentioned, probably in the second half of this year. The immediate goal is to continue to support the implementation of the review, at least for the current financial year, and we have sufficient resources at the moment to do that. We have an implementation team established which is doing that work. As the work of the department continues through the drafting and consultation process, the bulk of that work sits properly with the department at this stage of the development of the implementation of the recommendations. Obviously, the department is consulting the ACMA on drafting issues. We are providing advice and we have attended a number of stakeholder consultations with the department as part of that process.

Senator URQUHART: In terms of the resources that you are managing internally, how do those reforms and the implementation of those reforms affect the prioritisation of ACMA's work more broadly? Have you had to look at how you prioritise the work, given that your resources are coming from within at the moment?

Mr Bean : We have been able to establish an implementation team without significant difficulties associated with other parts of our work. The resource implications for the ACMA will become clearer following the completion of the department's consultation on the exposure draft and that part of the process.

Senator URQUHART: Is that in the second half of this year?

Mr Bean : We will follow that process, so to speak. So when the exposure draft is released, there will be a consultation on that and so on. During that process, it will become clearer what the resource implications will be for the ACMA, and we will cut our coat according to our cloth.

Senator URQUHART: Does the implementation of the spectrum review have any impacts on the upcoming auction of the 700 megahertz unsold lots spectrum, or vice versa?

Mr Bean : No.

Senator URQUHART: What governance arrangements, in terms of project management, does the ACMA have in place to manage the review implementation, if any?

Mr Bean : We have been developing governance arrangements for that program of work. That includes developing detailed project briefs for the work that we are expecting, although, as I have said, the details of the projects remain flexible as government settles the new legislation and associated policy settings. But we have established the sort of project governance arrangements that you would expect.

Senator URQUHART: You mentioned that you have the resources internally. So how many people are actually working on the spectrum review? How many staff are working on it at the moment?

Mr Bean : I think the implementation team has five members at the moment.

Senator URQUHART: Is that five full-time staff?

Mr Bean : More or less.

Senator URQUHART: More or less.

Mr Bean : I think so.

Senator URQUHART: Do you have plans to commission research or modelling to inform spectrum review implementation?

Mr Bean : I am not sure if we have finalised plans for specific research on specific aspects of it. Certainly, we are consulting widely and we expect to participate in the consultations, which will follow the release of the exposure draft.

Senator URQUHART: So you are not sure if you have plans or do you have plans but you just have not started yet?

Mr Bean : I can take on notice whether we have commissioned specific research in relation to this project. I can certainly assure you that we are gathering information and we will be doing so through the consultation processes, which are ongoing.

Senator URQUHART: If there are plans to commission research or modelling, could you give me the nature of what the research and modelling is and what the value of the contract would be?

Mr Bean : Certainly.

Senator URQUHART: Finally, on the spectrum review and, I guess, more fundamentally, I would like to briefly touch on ACMA's role. The department's 'Legislative proposals consultation paper' states, at page 2:

The proposed approach in preparing draft new legislation is to—

amongst other things—

clarify the role for Government, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and spectrum users;

Could you please tell me your understanding of why ACMA's role in spectrum management requires clarification, as outlined in that paper? Why does ACMA need clarification of its role?

Mr Bean : I think those questions are probably better directed to the department and it will become apparent during the exposure draft process exactly what changes are proposed. I am not aware that those changes are directed at the existence of confusion. The intention, as I understand it, is to ensure that those roles are clear in the new bill.

Senator URQUHART: Minister, what is your understanding of the shift in the regulator's role?

Senator Fifield: There is not a shift that government has taken a decision on as yet.

Senator URQUHART: Is there likely to be a shift?

Senator Fifield: We will be issuing shortly exposure draft legislation. There will be a two-month consultation period on that, and I cannot really add anything until that is released.

Senator URQUHART: Can you give me a time frame? You said 'shortly'.

Senator Fifield: Imminent would be too precise, but not far beyond imminent.

Senator URQUHART: It depends on what your definition of imminent is. Are we talking about a week or a couple of weeks?

Senator Fifield: We are talking about weeks as opposed to months.

Senator URQUHART: Would the change in role of a regulator have any budgetary implications?

Senator Fifield: I cannot anticipate that before we have released an exposure draft. People will see what is proposed then, and of course the exposure draft will be further shaped by the consultations.

Senator URQUHART: Right. But I guess if there is a change in the role of the regulator, would it be fair for me to assume that there may be some budgetary implications around that?

Senator Fifield: We will just have to wait and see what the end product is.

Senator URQUHART: So once we get the exposure draft in a few weeks, not months—is that correct?

Senator Fifield: That is correct.

Senator URQUHART: Are you saying that the government is yet to make a policy decision about the role of the regulator, which has informed the design of the exposure draft?

Senator Fifield: I was just saying we are not really in a position to talk about the exposure draft before the exposure draft is released.

Senator URQUHART: I have some questions around governance. According to the AusTender website the ACMA has some multimillion dollar contracts in relation to provision of the Do Not Call Register, provisions of numbering services and provision of education and training services. Is that correct?

Mr Bean : I do not have those details with me, but that sounds possible.

Senator URQUHART: I understand there is a contract with ZOAK?

Mr Bean : Oh yes. That is an existing contract. There is not a tender out for it.

Senator Fifield: But the contract would be on the AusTender website?

Mr Bean : Yes, that is right. Sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were referring to new ones.

Senator URQUHART: There is one with Salmat for just over $17 million.

Mr Bean : That would be the Do Not Call Register work.

Senator URQUHART: And there is a contract with the University of Tasmania and the Australian Maritime College for just over $2 million.

Mr Bean : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Those contract represent significant investment in public funds. What processes does the ACMA have in place to ensure adequate oversight of delegated functions to outsourced providers?

Mr Bean : We manage those contracts—that is correct—with those providers and we have staff dedicated to doing that.

Senator URQUHART: In terms of managing them, what oversight do you have? Do you manage them entirely on a regular, day-to-day basis? How do you do that?

Mr Bean : We have staff who are responsible for numbering functions and the functioning of the Do Not Call Register and so on and for the services that are provided in the maritime context. Needless to say, it is part of their job to ensure that the services that are being provided to industry by those providers are provided in an appropriate way, and they receive information about that. If issues arise, they raise them with the providers and so on in the normal course.

Senator URQUHART: Is that done in a regular reporting process? What is that process exactly? Can you just spell it out a little for me.

Mr Bean : I could ask one of my colleagues to come and do that for you, or we can provide you a more detailed answer on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Maybe just give me a brief update now and, if you are able to provide some more detail on notice, that would be great.

Ms McNeill : I can speak to both the contract with Salmat for the provision of Do Not Call Register services and the contract with ZOAK, which is for the provision of numbering administration services that they provide. Both those contracts have written into them particular performance standards and performance indicators that the providers are required to meet. There are reports on those on a regular basis, against which checks are made before payments are made under the contracts. I do not have the particular performance indicators to hand, but—

Senator URQUHART: I am happy to receive that on notice.

Ms McNeill : if you have a particular interest, I am happy to provide those on notice. Separately, if there are particular what I will call indicators of concern, we have the ability to conduct, and have from time to time conducted, what I will call spot checks of particular features of the services that are provided.

Senator URQUHART: That is great, but if you could give me a little more detail on notice around those indicators—

Ms McNeill : Certainly.

Senator URQUHART: I am also interested in what the ACMA does to support best practice with respect to management and oversight of these contracts. Would that would be picked up in the indicators?

Ms McNeill : I think that is probably a question best dealt with on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you. Can you also tell me about the deed of arrangement that you have with the Wireless Institute of Australia for amateur radio accreditation. When was it commenced and for what purposes?

Mr Bean : Once again, I do not have all of the details of that with me. I can provide these details on notice or I can ask Mr Tanner to give a short summary.

Senator URQUHART: If there is someone here, that would be great.

Mr Tanner : There are certain types of radio communications licence that come with training requirements. You mentioned the Australian Maritime College. That is a training provider that addresses the qualifications required by certain types of licence user—for example, in the maritime sector. The same is the case in the amateur licensing sphere. There are certain requirements or qualifications that users of amateur licences need to hold. The ACMA has a delegation to the Wireless Institute of Australia in connection with the examination and accreditation of amateur users.

Senator URQUHART: Does the deed of arrangement set out governance and reporting standards or requirements for the WIA to meet?

Mr Tanner : Yes, it does.

Senator URQUHART: What are they required to report to the ACMA under that deed?

Mr Tanner : There are a number of requirements, but I am afraid I would have to provide them on notice. I do not have a brief handy on that.

Senator URQUHART: Do you have any idea?

Mr Tanner : I would have to take it on notice.

Senator URQUHART: What arrangements does the ACMA have in place to satisfy itself that the governance and licensing arrangements at the WIA are appropriate? Are there any processes? Are they documented? Are the documents publicly available? For example, are minutes of meetings documented—those sorts of things?

Mr Tanner : I am not sure about minutes of meetings. However, as with other contracts for provision of services, there are reporting requirements and other requirements on the WIA, and those reports are duly solicited and considered. Any questions or problems are pursued. I should also make the point, perhaps with particular reference to the amateur community, that any complaints from third parties are also carefully investigated.

Senator URQUHART: Is the ACMA aware of concerns about governance and financial processes at the WIA?

For example, the WIA website currently publishes a number of fact sheets stating that claims that WIA is in trouble with ASIC and ACMA are without foundation. They claim:

Some WIA members have noted accusations and criticisms on social media and elsewhere, and asked that the WIA Board make detailed responses to these issues.

… many issues are either exaggerated, misrepresented, or without foundation. Some statements are totally inaccurate.

Mr Tanner : The ACMA is well aware that there is a lot of contention within the amateur community around the WIA. There are a number of individuals and, I believe, a group that are active in seeking changes in the WIA. I express no comment on that. The WIA is an independent organisation. I am also aware that the complaints, accusations and charges potentially touch on several jurisdictions—ASIC, because WIA is incorporated in a particular way, and potentially other agencies. I do not want to speculate about that. The issue which is of particular relevance to us is WIA's performance under its contract with us, to the extent that issues raised in these disputes within the amateur community and within WIA bear on that. We have been very active in monitoring and investigating that.

Senator URQUHART: At what level are these considered? Are they considered at an authority level?

Mr Tanner : I have taken an interest in those from time to time, as appropriate, and I have kept my full-time members informed when appropriate. I am not aware that the authority has formally considered any proposition or proposal about this. Certainly, I take an active interest, and I am the senior public servant in that area.

Senator URQUHART: Has the ACMA undertaken any investigation of these issues, either formally or informally?

Mr Tanner : We have, as I said, assiduously followed up the dimensions of these complaints and concerns that bear on WIA's contractual relationship. I need to make clear that WIA is an independent body. It is not constituted by us, not a licensee and so on and so forth. It is, however, an agency with which we have entrusted a key contract for delivery of services. We do have a vital interest in the effective discharge of those services and we take that very seriously. This is perhaps sometimes a difficult message to get across to the amateur community. There is a lot of contention in the community, I think it would be fair to say, and a great wish to find some sort of agency that will deliver a review with particular terms of reference that bear on the grievances and concerns that people have. Our concern is focused very much on the services that are discharged by WIA. That is not necessarily the same, although it overlaps with the concerns that you will encounter if you tap into the debates inside the amateur community—if I could put it that way.

Senator URQUHART: What confidence does the ACMA have that the WIA is administering its functions with respect to amateur licensing properly? Do you have confidence that they are actually doing that?

Mr Tanner : That is a very high-level question; I will give you a very high-level answer. I have not, to date, been shown material information that would suggest that there is a fundamental problem. There are issues in terms of their obligations under the contract that we have been active in pursuing with WIA, but I would not infer from that that there is some fundamental breakdown in the delivery of services. It is an issue that we are very alive to and we are continuing to follow up on.

Senator URQUHART: Is the ACMA satisfied that amateur licences are being issued to appropriately qualified people? Is there any substance to the claim that there are people getting amateur licences who actually are not qualified to hold them under Australian standards?

Mr Tanner : That is not a claim that I am aware we have investigated.

Senator URQUHART: Are you satisfied that the licences that are being provided are being provided to adequately qualified people?

Mr Tanner : I would put it at a somewhat different level. I am not aware of any systemic problem with the performance or behaviour of the amateur community—which might, for example, manifest as mischief, interference or failure to operate in accordance with rules which are designed to protect other radio users—that would suggest to me that the training process is broken. Not at all.

Senator URQUHART: Would you be concerned that there might be licences being issued to inappropriately qualified people?

Mr Tanner : Naturally it would concern me if the processes we have put in place were not effective in ensuring that people had appropriate training before they use radios—of course.

Senator URQUHART: What is the ACMA doing to foster and improve standards of practice at the WIA? Do you have a role in working with them to try and improve standards of practice?

Mr Tanner : I think I have already indicated what our role is. By accepting a tender from WIA for the provision of what are critical services, albeit services which we think are well suited to provision by third parties, we have entrusted a significant responsibility to WIA, and we are very determined to ensure that that is discharged properly. I would make a point—one of the governance checks on the tendering out of this type of service is that the tenders are only given for a certain period. The current tender will come to an end before the end of this decade, and it is coming up quite shortly that the ACMA is going to have to consider what it will do going forward. That may or may not occur against the backdrop of changes to law as well, so, while it is not imminent, the fact is it is coming up quite soon that the ACMA is going to have to first consider internally and then canvass more widely what it does at the end of the current arrangements. I think there are some questions you can raise that are potentially better considered there than on a day-to-day basis because, as I say, for the ACMA, the big focus of activity has been on ensuring that WIA properly discharges its obligations under its agreement with us.

Senator URQUHART: So you do that through your monitoring, your constant conversations—those sorts of things?

Mr Tanner : We do it by following up on the reports that WIA is required to make and by investigating complaints.

Senator URQUHART: Minister, do you have confidence that the ACMA has delegated its functions in respect to amateur licensing appropriately?

Senator Fifield: I rely on the advice of the ACMA that they are appropriately supervising that activity.

Senator URQUHART: So you are confident in that, obviously.

Senator Fifield: Well, I rely on the advice of the ACMA.

Senator URQUHART: Thanks for that. I want to go to some questions around illegal mobile-number porting. I want to ask you if you can explain how porting processes currently work, including the role of industry and the ACMA.

Ms McNeill : The mobile-number porting issue that you flag—the process simply is: a customer requests a new service with a new provider. That provider is obliged to follow certain processes, engaging with the losing provider, and the number can be ported across to the new provider. I do not have the details of the processes to hand, but it does involve some careful checking.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to provide those processes?

Ms McNeill : Sure.

Senator URQUHART: Thanks. We have seen a number of complaints—increasing over a period of time—coming to people in my office from a number of people who have had their mobile number illegally ported, which has in turn left them open to fraud and financial loss. Some of these constituents have had their number ported multiple times within a few days. What types of risk surveillance does the ACMA undertake in this area? Do you do any risk surveillance?

Ms McNeill : These sorts of porting activities are governed by an industry code, the mobile number portability code. We are conscious that there is a risk that particularly financial institutions face because financial institutions have chosen to use SMS as a secondary form of identification for account transactions. Of course, that has flow-on effects for the consumers who might have their numbers unlawfully ported away. Because their personal details have been fished or harvested in some way by criminals, if those criminals are then able to use those personal details which have been fished or otherwise harvested to port a number away, they get the secondary form of identification and they might be in a position to operate accounts. So we are conscious that that is an issue and we are conscious that the telecommunications industry, through its representative body, Communications Alliance, has engaged with the financial services industry to look for solutions to the problem.

One of the initiatives that the telecommunications industry took was to modify its own code arrangements to facilitate access by financial institutions to porting information in particular circumstances, but we understand that is not a facility that the financial services industry has readily engaged with and taken up. We are conscious that there is an issue, but we are also conscious, on the other side of the fence, that porting is a good thing—that being able to move providers and participate in a competitive market without losing your number are good things and there should not be unreasonable impediments to that happening. The code tries to strike a balance, but there is always an open question about whether that is the correct balance. At the moment we think it is.

Senator URQUHART: Do you engage with stakeholders at regular intervals on porting processes?

Ms McNeill : We engage typically around what I call code related issues or, from time to time, we will conduct investigations to see whether those porting code obligations have been complied with by providers.

Senator URQUHART: Is that just random or you do that in a—

Ms McNeill : 'Random' is probably not the way that I would describe it, but it would be in response to people raising concerns. There would be a particular circumstance or pattern of conduct that causes us to make inquiries or conduct an investigation.

Senator URQUHART: If someone wanted to make a complaint about the fact that they are not satisfied with how an illegal porting situation has been handled, how do they go about that? I have looked on your website and I cannot find a clear direction on how they would actually do that. Could you spell that out for me?

Ms McNeill : To the extent that the person has a concern with how their telecommunications providers have dealt with it, we would usually encourage individual complainants to pursue the matter through the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman in the first instance. If people have a concern, they are encouraged to contact their provider. If that does not work, it escalates to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. We would usually take a more acute interest when we were beginning to see patterns of complaints or if they were flagged. We have regular catch-ups with the industry ombudsman's office if there are systemic concerns or bigger picture issues that are coming to the fore.

Senator URQUHART: Are there any processes available to the industry or to yourselves to reconsider procedures if the risk level changes in a way that warrants closer attention?

Ms McNeill : All the industry codes that are registered with the ACMA are periodically reviewed, so there is an opportunity. Ordinarily, reviews would be initiated by industry because they are industry owned codes, but, if there were particular indicators of concern, we as the regulator or others could raise the issue with industry and seek to have it agitated.

Senator URQUHART: Have you spoken to many banks about the trends and impacts that they have been observing?

Ms McNeill : I have not spoken to banks directly and it has been some time since I was involved in a consultation process that involved them as well.

Senator URQUHART: Would that be something that you would not get involved in or would you leave it to the point when you have those updates with the ombudsman?

Ms McNeill : Ordinarily, I would leave those engagements, at least in the first instance, to the telecommunications industry. To the extent that banks are choosing to use a telecommunications-related mechanism as a form of identification and to the extent that they have concerns about how industry is operationalising that, that would be the first point of engagement between the two industry sectors.

Senator URQUHART: Would instances where the same number has been illegally ported on multiple occasions, despite carriers being aware after the first instance, suggests that stronger safeguards or better staff training may be needed to ensure that these repeated breaches cannot occur?

Ms McNeill : I would not like to comment on it on a general level. Certainly, if I put a consumer hat on, I would be acutely anxious if my number was being rolled from place to place, and it is rather surprising that any financial institution would permit repeat fraud using different numbers, if that is the circumstance.

Senator URQUHART: I want to move on to some content conversation. Minister, who is running the government's agenda for content reform? Is it you, the department, the ACMA or the House Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts?

Senator Fifield: When you say content, do you mean issues like quota requirements and those sorts of things?

Senator URQUHART: Content reform.

Senator Fifield: The department is the policy department.

Senator URQUHART: I asked who is running the government's agenda for content reform. You are saying the department is the driver of the policy or—I just want to get it clear.

Senator Fifield: The department is the policy body. In questions from Senator Bilyk before, I said that content review is something that is in contemplation, but we have not taken any decisions or made any announcements about that at the moment. I did also note that that the House Committee on Communications and the Arts has an inquiry into those matters at the moment.

Senator URQUHART: The Abbott Turnbull government has been in power for 3½ years. Why is it taking so long to review content policy issues? The department has, since 2014, acknowledged the need for reform.

Senator Fifield: There is a range of views in the broad media sector. Those views between different parts of the sector do not necessarily align with each other, as you know. It is an area where you want to ensure that you consult widely and well. But you are right, it is an issue that is timely.

Senator URQUHART: Given that the department has the running, as you indicated, why haven't we seen anything at all from the department?

Senator Fifield: Why haven't you seen?

Senator URQUHART: Why haven't we seen anything from the department?

Senator Fifield: I have indicated that this is an area that the government has in contemplation.

Senator URQUHART: Isn't there a risk that current processes to examine content policy issues are disparate and will be duplicative and burdensome on industry and the community? Shouldn't you have announced a formal content review process by now, given that we have talked about 3½ years?

Senator Fifield: I have indicated it is an area that we are looking at.

Senator URQUHART: One of the views from the media sector is that the delay to reform is leading to uncertainty. I guess that is a concern in terms of the time frame. That is why I am raising these issues.

Senator Fifield: The industry knows what the current incentives and obligations are.

Senator URQUHART: But if it is leading to uncertainty, surely there is process whereby you could speed things up and at least provide some information.

Senator Fifield: I cannot add to what I have already said at this stage.

Senator URQUHART: I will go back to the ACMA. Why is the ACMA holding a content conversation conference? What is it intended to achieve?

Mr Bean : It is intended to provide a forum in which those interested in Australian content and, particularly, the regulatory framework in which it is produced and screened have a forum in which to discuss issues that they think it is timely to discuss.

Senator URQUHART: Are there any outcomes that you are looking for, or is it more a gathering?

Mr Bean : We are not looking for specific outcomes. We have deliberately categorised it as a conversation. It is intended to be an open conversation to enable people to surface, as they say, the issues that they think exist in Australia at the moment—those they think should be considered—and we are keen for people to be able to have that conversation in an open way. We think that is a useful thing to do.

Senator URQUHART: I understand the media release announcing the opening of registration states that day 2 of the conference will focus on 'interventions that could and should be made'. What interventions are there that could and should be made? I am interested in what those details are.

Mr Bean : That is a question for the participants in the conference, really. As the minister indicated, those involved in Australian screen content production, broadcast and screening know well what the existing incentives and obligations are. We are inviting people to discuss those and to express their views about whether there could and should be different ones. We are not expressing a view ourselves.

Senator URQUHART: It is more a hook to get people in. Is that it?

Mr Bean : It is an invitation to a conversation.

Senator URQUHART: What input did the minister—and, Minister, I am happy for you to answer that—and/or the department have in the selection of speakers and topics for the conference?

Senator Fifield: I have not had an involvement.

Mr Bean : It has been organised by the ACMA. We have kept the minister and his office, and, of course, the department and also Screen Australia, informed about our plans. You will notice that the conference is being staged in cooperation with the department and Screen Australia. But, fundamentally, the ACMA is organising it and we have a small team of people arranging sessions and inviting speakers and so on.

Senator URQUHART: Will the conversation canvass anti-siphoning regulation, or just program standards within the ACMA's policy remit?

Mr Bean : It will canvass whatever participants want to raise. We are not specifically targeting anti-siphoning, for example, but, obviously enough, the ACMA has a direct interest in the matters which are within its bailiwick, and we would expect those to be discussed.

Senator URQUHART: What evidence, discussion papers or research, if any, will be supplied by the ACMA to inform the conversation?

Mr Bean : We are not holding the conference to launch anything in particular. We will be talking about research that we have conducted that is relevant to the conference, but it is not a staging event, in the sense that we would expect to launch anything in particular.

Senator URQUHART: But will you be supplying any discussion papers?

Mr Bean : We will be providing information that we have, yes, to inform the conversation.

Senator URQUHART: What sort of information?

Mr Bean : I do not have with me the details of what research we may have available specifically at that time. I can provide that to you on notice, if you wish.

Senator URQUHART: That would be great. What resources are being used to prepare for and host the content conversation? That would include things like the number of staff working, including research staff; services being procured, if any; the value of contacts for procurement of services.

Mr Bean : We have a small team of people working, part time mostly, on organising the conference. We have a small budget associated with the staging of the conference, and we are engaging some external parties to assist us with audiovisual content and all of the sorts of things you would expect that you would need to arrange a conference of this kind. I can provide details of those to you on notice, if you wish.

Senator URQUHART: That would be great. I understand tickets to the event cost $850, I think it is.

Mr Bean : That sounds right.

Senator URQUHART: Is the cost of the tickets likely to act as a barrier to participation? Will there be measures to support access, maybe by webcasting at a cheaper rate because it is for students, for example? Are there other opportunities for people?

Mr Bean : There is an early bird discount.

Senator URQUHART: Do you know what that is?

Mr Bean : I think it is a modest discount.

Senator URQUHART: What is modest?

Mr Bean : I think it might be $100 cheaper if you register early.

Senator URQUHART: So you are still looking at $750.

Mr Bean : I am advised that that is cheap for a two-day conference. It is, nevertheless, certain to be a lot of money for some people, as you indicate. We do not have a specific program, but we certainly do want wide participation and it is our practice to consider, on a case-by-case basis, participation in our conferences where we think that the fee will be a barrier.

Senator URQUHART: Do you advertise that?

Mr Bean : No, we do not have an advertised program of free tickets for certain categories of people.

Senator URQUHART: Maybe a student or somebody who really wanted to attend may, for example, look at the cost of $850 and think, 'Wow—there's no way I can afford that.'

Mr Bean : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: They would then basically be turned away due to the fact that they do not think there is an opportunity. How do you—

Mr Bean : That is a balancing act, I suppose. It is our practice to pitch the fee at a level which will at least assist in defraying the costs of holding the event and to put it as low as we can in that context. Some people will be unable to pay and, as I say, we are conscious of that. But we do not have an advertised program.

Senator URQUHART: But you do have a process for those people who will find that difficult?

Mr Bean : We have a practice of considering those.

Senator URQUHART: With the AM-FM conversion, I understand that previously you only considered AM-FM conversion of commercial radio broadcasting services in very exceptional circumstances. Why was this the case, and what reason has the minister provided for directing the ACMA to change its approach to AM-FM conversions?

Mr Bean : We have changed our approach to AM-FM conversion, and the minister expressed a view about that. He might wish to respond to that part of the question.

Senator Fifield: I was responding to industry feedback that they were keen for the issue to be addressed.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you, minister. Can you update the committee on the planned conversion of AM radio licences to FM in regional areas, and what is involved in the planning and licensing work that the ACMA does? Mr Tanner?

Mr Tanner : Following receipt of the minister's request to reconsider the application of our policy in areas where there was only one commercial radio provider and to give that work priority, the ACMA released two pieces of work. One was a revision of its policy on AM to FM conversion, which developed a detailed set of general policy approaches to requests for AM-FM conversion from commercial radio. The other was that we called for submissions on four—actually, it was originally five, but is now four—so-called easy markets, all of which are in remote and regional Western Australia. If you like, we moved to vary our policy, but we did not—we also said, 'Assuming we do vary the policy, here's some easy markets that we can proceed with. Are there any comments?' I cannot remember if we have wound that process up or if we are in the process of doing so at the moment.

Meanwhile, what has been going on behind the scenes is that the radio industry has been pretty organised in its support of this process. One of the key things that occurred when the radio industry approached the minister was that it also offered to assist with the technical planning work required for AM to FM conversion.

To give a little bit of background on that, there are something like over 50 licence areas around Australia which have only a single radio operator in them. Nearly always that is a single company which owns an AM and an FM commercial licence. Because the ABA in the years before 2005 did a pretty thorough public planning process, there are actually not a lot of high-powered FM frequencies left around Australia. They are more common in very remote areas where there is not much demand. But anywhere near Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and so on you will find the ABA was under pressure to plan to the limits. That means that there are just not suitable frequencies for AM to FM conversion in every market, or even in most markets, where operators would like to convert to FM.

So, basically, with the radio industry we came up with this concept that there were easy markets. A good example of an easy market would be, say, Karratha in Western Australia. It is very remote in FM planning terms, so there are a lot of frequencies up there, and it is easy to find another one. In the harder markets, we thought there were some spectrum opportunities but there were difficulties that would have to be worked through. To give you an example of what I mean by that, perhaps there are two or three services in a broad area that might like to convert, but there are probably only one or two suitable frequencies—so what are we going to do there? It was agreed that the commercial industry would engage an engineering consultant to do initial work to the ACMA's specifications to see what was possible.

So what has been going on behind that change in policy was that the ACMA has simply proceeded with any easy market where the operators want to go ahead. And that has resulted in us putting out proposals for conversion of four small regional and remote radio licence areas to FM. Meanwhile, we are working with a consultant engaged by Commercial Radio Australia. We are still at the stage where that consultant is looking at some test markets, or geographical areas. They are areas where there is interest in AM/FM conversion. What we are doing with the consultant is making sure that our planning criteria and methodology is fully understood and the work is of a quality so that we can simply take it and then consult on it. Because the power to effect AM/FM conversion is the ACMA's, and it is exercised through making a legislative instrument called a licence area plan. So we cannot give that away. We have to do that. But we are currently working on a couple of test areas in these harder market areas, with the consultant. And I expect, perhaps in the next few weeks, you will be seeing further licence area plan variation proposals, where we actually bring out that work with some technical proposals.

But we are working from a list of licensees that want to convert. It is a lot shorter than the total number of so-called solus markets in Australia. But, as was requested by the minister, it has our priority. It is a major job because of the intensity of FM use in most of the more densely settled parts of the country. With the possible exception of digital radio, it is our top priority for broadcasting planning at the moment.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Tanner, you talked about remote and regional WA, and you mentioned Karratha. I think you said there were four small regional and remote areas. What are those areas?

Mr Tanner : If you give me a second, I will just manage any risk of making a mistake by reading them out for you. Port Hedland, Karratha and remote Western Australia.

Senator URQUHART: What does that mean?

Mr Tanner : Paraburdoo, Tom Price—sorry, it is a bit confusing because so-called remote Western Australia is a very large area, which has a single licence with a number of licence areas. I am having difficulty telling which are towns in that big licence area and which are the actual licence areas.

CHAIR: Is this one for notice, perhaps?

Mr Tanner : Yes. We will take it on notice.

Senator URQUHART: Take it on notice, but basically I have got the drift—Port Hedland, Karratha, Paraburdoo and Tom Price.

Mr Tanner : We did, until recently, have a New South Welsh city in there too, Broken Hill, but the expression of interest was withdrawn.

Senator URQUHART: You also talked about harder markets. Do you anticipate the conversion process to be controversial in some markets?

Mr Tanner : I do not anticipate it to be controversial, but it may throw up difficult issues and choices, and there is scope for controversy. I think I gave you an example. There might be the possibility of using a high-powered FM frequency, but only one, across a broad area and there might be three single-owner markets in that area. If two of them want it, then that might be controversial.

Senator DUNIAM: How are ACMA's preparations going for the looming advent of 5G technology?

Mr Bean : We are prosecuting our work in that area with vigour. We have a number of activities in a number of areas. We have commenced an investigation of a number of bands, in particular the 1.5 gigahertz and 3.6 gigahertz bands, and we released a consultation paper on the future of those. Submissions on those closed late last year, so that is progressing well. We have also been working in what is known as the 900 megahertz band, and we have been doing a number of bits of work in that band as well. You will be aware that the definition of 5G is still under development.

Senator DUNIAM: Yes.

Mr Bean : It really refers, for example, to very high data rates, reduced latency and the ability to support a large number of devices. That is where you get into the Internet of Things area as well. There is not a particular solution to 5G, but, of course, an area that is of particular relevance to ACMA's work is spectrum bands, what spectrum will be available and what spectrum is harmonised around the world which is particularly suitable for these anticipated new applications in so-called 5G. The initial focus is on the three to six gigahertz part of the spectrum band, but there is also a lot of interest in what are known as the millimetre-wave bands, which are very high-frequency—24 gigahertz, for example—bands. We are doing some planning and investigation work in relation to those, in particular 24.25 to 27.5 gigahertz.

Senator DUNIAM: Thank you. That covers that. Senator Urquhart touched on the auction of the 700 megahertz spectrum. I just wondered what the status of that project is and when the auction is expected to occur.

Mr Bean : That is proceeding very well and according to plan. All of the steps which needed to be taken during the last few months have been taken successfully. The auction is scheduled to commence on 4 April, and we expect that it will.

Senator DUNIAM: A week and a bit away.

Mr Bean : Which is very soon, yes. We have, in most recent days, been conducting mock auctions for the assistance of the planned participants in the auction so that they can practise with the system.

Senator DUNIAM: All on track and on target?

Mr Bean : All on track and on target.

Senator DUNIAM: That is pleasing to hear. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, and thanks for appearing here today. We have certainly covered a lot of ground with you today. Thank you.